Inspired Travel: Exploring the Eastern Sierras-Bodie, Mono Lake, and Mammoth Lakes
It’s fun to travel halfway across the world to see what Mother Earth has on offer, but it isn’t always necessary—this last weekend proved that point. I am lucky to live in over 163,000 square miles of endlessly entertaining and wildly varying terrain, otherwise known as the great state of California. While I have an affinity for trips that allow me to stay in very nice hotels, shop for days, and eat my weight in unique foods, I have another side which craves unity with the outdoors. Los Angeles can provide me with the former, but the latter was where my mind has been lately, which is why my dear friend and I embarked on a two-day road trip to see some perhaps “lesser-known” sights in the Golden State. Maybe you’ll look at this list and scoff. “Good God, Allie! I’ve known about the great Devils Postpile since I was a wee lass!” you’ll scream at your computer. Good on you, I’ll say. I did not, so this was new to me. Below, you’ll find some information about each site (including the things I wish I would have known before we went), as well as what I hope are some interesting pictures.
The Itinerary: Day One—Bodie. Day Two—Mono Lake, Devils Postpile, Hot Creek Geologic Site
The drive: We embarked on our trip to Bodie from my abode in Cupertino—Google Maps said it would be about 5.5 hours, and it was (not counting the required stops for fast food and pregnant lady bathroom trips). We traveled through Stanislaus National Forest on Highway 108, which is outright beautiful, and I’d love to go back someday.
Helpful to know before you go:
- If you travel the Sonora Pass, be prepared for 26% grades. It is the second highest pass in the Sierra Nevadas at 9,624 feet (first place goes to Tioga), and it is positively breathtaking, but also a bit of a challenge to drive if you aren’t used to the mountains. The road is impeccably kept, but I was just a little shocked at how windy and wild it was. Also, it appears to be closed from around November to May (snow accumulation), so keep that in mind.
- T-Mobile has absolutely zero signal out there, so bring some CD’s or preloaded music.
- Save time to pull off and gawk at the spectacular views. This is probably the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done.
- You’ll drive by a Marine Mountain Warfare Training Base when you enter Mono County. This is interesting, albeit ominous.
- The first gas station we passed, in Bridgeport, was selling gas for $4.99 a gallon. Yep—if you can wait to fill up, you should, as gas dropped back down to $3.49ish afterwards. I don’t normally hem and haw over gas prices, but $1.50 more a gallon was a bit much, even for me.
Stop One: Bodie, California—Bodie State Historic Park
Bodie is a real gold mining ghost town, which hit its stride in the late 1880’s. The last people living in Bodie left in 1942, and now the remaining buildings are kept in a state of “arrested decay,” meaning they are reinforced and kept standing, but not restored. You can learn more about Bodie here.
Helpful to know before you go:
- Bodie will cost you $10–an $8 entrance fee, and $2 for the brochure, which tells you some information about the town and gives you a guided walking tour of fifty of the buildings. I’d advise that someone in your group pony up for the brochure, just so you know who got murdered where or what one-armed man lived in house #12 (many missing appendages in Bodie. And many murders, too).
- The road to Bodie can close at short notice due to weather conditions—check CA.gov before you go.
- The last three miles to Bodie are unpaved (a theme, you’ll see, in the upcoming attractions). People on the internet (notably, Trip Advisor and Yelp) were up in arms about this, and my reading of their reviews made me think we should cancel our trip altogether. Take it from me: It. Is. Fine. Yes, it is a gravel road. No, I don’t drive a Dodge RAM. I drive a tiny Corolla who did a totally A-OK job navigating the bumps. Just don’t go with a recently cleaned car, and go slowly if you need to (many a truck passed us, even though I was certainly maintaining the speed limit, no problem). Please don’t let the road deter you, but do be aware of it.
- Budget at least two hours to see everything. It’s fascinating, it truly is. I could have stood in front of the schoolhouse and the general store for hours, just looking at each individual thing that was left there.
- Bring a sweatshirt/pants/rain jacket/bikini. Lord Jesus, the weather in that part of California is wonkier than SF, even. Though it wasn’t forecasted, we found our trip sandwiched by some thunderstorms, which presumably drove down the temperatures. I would have benefited from some warmer clothes and a rain coat—I did have a sweatshirt. Pack for 30+ degree fluctuations. Also, not sure about the bikini—but if you’ve ever wanted to sunbathe in a ghost town? Go for it.
- Tours of the mine happen at specific times—plan accordingly. I was drawn to the mine like a fly to honey, but we sadly missed the last tour, and it is too dangerous to go in alone. If I ever go back, I’ll certainly do a guided tour of the mine as well.
Click through the above photos to get a taste of Bodie.
Stop Two: Mono Lake
Mono Lake is a million-year old lake. Literally. It is an inland sea, 2.5 times saltier than the ocean. It also has a super interesting history—read about it here. It’s claim to fame are the strange calcium bicarbonate spindle spires that twist out of the water, called tufas. This was our second stop after Bodie, but due to the aforementioned thunderstorm, we had to move our visit to the next morning. We settled on a sunrise trip, and it was well worth getting up at five in the morning.
Helpful to know before you go:
- We went to South Tufa Area, which required a $3 use fee, payable by cash or check in an envelope.
- You’ll need to drive on another unpaved road (well-maintained, again, but good to know nonetheless).
- There will be tripods everywhere at sunrise, it seems (and probably other times, too). The lake is an incredibly popular thing to photograph. Every corner we explored that morning had five or so tripods camped out, trying to capture the perfect “tufa reflecting water” shot.
- There will also be flies everywhere. Thousands of millions of them. They aren’t scary, though. I don’t like bugs. You can trust me. Not that big of a deal. They don’t bite and fly away from you, not toward you. Learn more about them—alkali flies—here.
- The only thing that can live in the lake are brine shrimp, aka sea monkeys. If you decide to venture into the water (which we did), you will be swimming with millions of sea monkeys. They are super harmless, it appears, but they wigged me out a bit more than the flies. Also, if you have some kind of aquatic footwear, wear it, because the bottom of the lake is jagged rock, mostly.
I do think you should get in the water, just for a minute...and this is coming from someone who was very afraid of it. How many times can you say you swam in a million-year old lake? Or did a sunrise swim with sea monkeys? I mean, I mostly flailed around for five minutes, but many people do bona fide swimming in the lake, and they are totally fine. In fact, some people say the water is therapeutic and can cure what ails you. Check out some interesting reads on swimming in the lake here and here (this one is written by a Mono Lake ranger, which made me feel altogether safer about getting in).
Stop #3: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes
Devils Postpile is a large collection of columnar basalt, formed around 100,000 years ago. A short hike (less than a mile round trip), will give you access to this very interesting natural phenomenon. Hike a bit further, and you’ll make it to Rainbow Falls.
Helpful to Know Before You Go:
- The only way to access the Postpile is by special bus, which costs $8.
- Summer (and Saturday) seems to be very busy at Mammoth Mountain. Granted, when we were there, Ferguson was burning in Yosemite, so that may have changed some people’s weekend plans. We did have to queue up for quite awhile to get on the bus (which is probably a 20-30 minute ride each way). What I’m saying is, budget some time for this attraction. We assumed that we’d be able to boop over to the pile, peek at at, and boop on back. There was no booping. It was more of a process, less of a boop. I’ll stop saying boop now. (Boop!)
- Many people will be walking to the Postpile—it is hard to miss it. Like, so many. I kind of felt like I was at Disney.
- Watch the weather/your timing if you want to see the falls as well. We cut Rainbow Falls out of our trip, primarily because it was supposed to storm in the afternoon (like it did the day before), and we needed to get back to Cupertino at a decent hour. Expect to hike 4-5 miles if you want to see the waterfall as well. I’ll definitely be going back to see it in the future, but it didn’t fit into this day (especially considering the lengthier bus ride to actually get near the Postpile).
Stop #4: Hot Creek Geologic Site
First and foremost—these hot springs are not for getting in and resting your aching joints. You would literally boil to death. These hot springs are just for looking at—and they were a great side stop that didn’t take much time to see before we left. The turquoise water is pretty mesmerizing, so I can see why they have to put up all the “don’t go over thereeeeeeee” signs. (I wanted to go over there).
Helpful to know before you go
- Yep. Another unpaved road. Again, it’s fine. Just come to expect them in eastern California.
- It’s a quick visit. I can’t imagine spending much more time here than we did (less than 30 minutes). Maybe bring something to eat and stare at the pretty water? I think some people fish for salmon in the hot creek—so if you’re down with that, it’s another option. There may have also been another trail, but by then it was raining again, so we didn’t go very far.
Mammoth Tavern: Small, second-floor restaurant in Mammoth. They had a really interesting menu. I was so happy to see croquettes on offer. I love them and there’s were quite amazing! I had a grilled cheese that boasted brisket in the middle, which was mega filling, but a bit difficult to eat in polite company—whole hunks of meat would tear free out of the sandwich, making me appear to be a wild animal and not just a constantly starving pregnant woman. The rest of the menu looked really good as well.
The Good Life Cafe: This place was walking distance from The Sierra Nevada Resort. The menu boasted most excellent breakfast offerings—I had fresh squeezed orange juice, Hawaiian bread French Toast, and sausage—all was delicious and hearty. Perfect food for a day of hiking. Of note: every time a hot chocolate walked out of the kitchen, I was instantly jealous of whoever was getting it—yum-o!
We stayed at The Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa in Mammoth Lakes. It was a fine establishment, though it did seem a bit dated for the price we paid. Granted, we booked late (and the Yosemite fire probably displaced people). It was very clean, in a great location, and had a piano that once belonged to Clark Gable. Also, one unique amenity we did not partake in was the free mini-golf in the parking lot. I’ve never stayed anywhere that offered such a thing. The pool and hot tub looked really nice, and there was a spa (as well as three restaurants) on the property. We were there for a one-night engagement only, so I don’t feel as though I got the full picture of the lodge. I was a fan of the dancing bears in front, though.
So there you have it—a little rundown of our staycation in eastern California. My final verdict is that I’ll most assuredly visit that area of our great state again. We were very close to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and I still want to hike to Rainbow Falls. There were also many places to go horseback riding, kayaking, etc.
Let me know in the comments below if this recap was helpful, or if you have any questions about the trip! I had a lot of fun reminiscing on our time—perhaps I’ll write some more Inspired Travel posts soon. :)